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Who cares? - Isaiah 40

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 12th September 1999.

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It was on October 21st, 1966 that it happened.There had been accidents before of course.Coal mining is a notoriously dangerous industry.But this accident was different.For it happened not deep underground from the sight of press and TV, but in the clear light of day before the eyes of a nation.And it happened not to miners themselves who know the peril of the pit ,but it happened to their children.Aberfan was the name of the place.A typical south Wales mining community nestling in a valley a few miles from Merther Tydffal.On its outskirts stood a man- made hillock some 200 feet high.Over a million tons of accumulated coal slag had been dumped on that hill.It was just after 9am on that fateful Friday morning when the mountain began to move.Slowly at first in such imperceptible degrees that those working the cranes didn’t realise what was happening ,and then all of a sudden an avalanche of black sludge descended upon the village.Cottages and shops were engulfed.But it was not their loss which was responsible for this being such a heart rending and horrifying calamity.No,Pentglass Junior school was at the very foot of the mountain.254 young children had arrived to school that morning.The tidal wave of mud swallowed them whole .The dead bodies of 116 children and 28 adults were eventually unearthed from beneath this black suffocating morass.I was 11 years old at the time,and belonging to a small mining community myself I can tell you that the sense of empathy was very strong .I remember coming home from school and seeing my grandfather, himself a former miner ,with my mother,sitting before a TV screen weeping as they saw one small body after another being gathered up in blankets.One of those who lost their child was the local baptist minister.Interviewed at the time ,tear stricken and choking back the grief he confessed ‘My faith has been shaken to the core ,I dont know how I shall ever preach again.’Can you blame him?

What can a Christian say in the face of such a disaster?Where can a Christian go to find the resources necessary to enable him to go on believing when confronted with suffering on such an appalling scale?The temptation to doubt on such occasions is almost irresistible isnt it?And the doubt which thrusts itself upon the believer is not the abstract doubt of the philosopher-does God exist?No, the doubt is much more agonizing than that-it is the doubt expressed in the question:Does God care?That was the question the weeping mothers in Aberfan were asking that day-does God care?And that was the question these Jews were asking when this prophecy in Is 40 was delivered to them.And I would want to suggest to you that it is the question often uppermost in our minds too,if the truth be known.Because I tell you this,if God doesn’t care then neither will we.Callous indifference to the plight of others is the only course open to us ,for if God doesnt care,then life has no ultimate meaning or value.

And that was the conclusion some of these Jews in the 6th century BC were coming to.If you were to multiply the Aberfan disaster by a factor of a 1,000 or 2,then you will begin to get pretty close to the scale of the crisis which was affecting the people of Israel.You have to picture a people who had been taught for a thousand years or more that they were the chosen people of God.He has given them their land,a king, a temple which was one of the great wonders of the world.God had pledged himself irrevocably to them in covenant.Now picture this same people: besieged for two long harrowing years by one of the mightiest and most ruthless armies the world has ever known-the Babylonian army.Picture them reduced to total starvation-mothers consumming their own children in order to stay alive.Picture them finally defeated, humilated, by the overwhelming military might of this pagan empire only to be herded away from their homeland,crammed into refugee camps in a hostile and strange environment-full of pagan idols,knowing that their own beloved,beautiful city is now nothing more than a ghostown, a habitation for rats and jackals.We cannot overestimate the effect that national tragedy had on the faith of the Jewish people.For them their cry to God was like the agonized cry of an abandoned wife for her husband-does he love me?Does he care?And the answer many pious Jews at the time gave was in the negative.Of course God doesn’t care; if he cared he wouldn’t have done this.And it may well be that you are feeling like that this morning,or at least know of some people who do.

So is there a way to offset such destructive thoughts and answer to this question?Well, yes there is and we find it in these central sections of Isaiah which we shall be looking at over the next few weeks.And at heart the answer is deceptively simple and it is this:we are to replace negative thoughts of God with great thoughts of God.On the basis of God’s own self-revelation ,instead of our faulty imaginations about him, we are to allow our minds and our hearts to be gripped by the shear grandeur and tender compassion of the God who cares.

We see this right at the outset in chapter 40 and v1 -2 (Read).There is no way the prophet can minimise the suffering God’s people have experienced.Like slaves oppressed by a cruel tyrant they have endured what he calls ‘hard service’.But his message is this:don’t despair.For those long years of duress are now coming to an end.God certainly will not ignore your sin Israel,but God will pay for them himself in a most remarakable way as we shall see in a few weeks time-paying double for your sins in an act of sacrificial atonement.God is not bellowing at you in his wrath,but like some young Romeo he is speaking tenderly to you,wooing you-’Comfort,comfort my people’ that double repitition adds emotional intensity to the voice of God.Your God is a God of comfort-strengthening,healing and you are about to experience it.

Already he has summonsed angelic messengers to prepare for his as we see in -v3- a royal highway is to be constructed ready for the royal chariot,your King is coming to you,he has not abandoned you.But the prophet may well say ‘You tell me that you find it difficult to believe such things.Allelujah is a word which does not come easily to the lips of a people who for 70 years have been enslaved.Nonetheless I want you to believe it,for while it is true that we human beings are such ephemeral creatures,here today,gone tommorow,who when the wrath of God breaths on us we wither away like dried leaves,there is one thing which is immune from the ravages of time,and that is God’s word- ‘v8(read).That is what I am asking you to put your faith in,says the prophet-not your feelings,not you circumstances,but in the unchanging,dependable voice of God. Like a shepherd,v11,he comes to lead his flock from the barren desert wastlands into pastures you have never dreamt of,gathering the little lambs into his arms,holding them close to his heart.This is glad tidings-v9 -good news-Gospel-God setting up his new messianic kingdom of love and you are invited to share in it.That is how much he cares.

But can you believe it?That is the question of course.How can he persuade them and some of us that we must believe it?Well,the only way to combat these corrosive thoughts about God is by replacing them with lofty thoughts about him, and that is exactly what the prophet goes on to do in v 12ff -and get ready to have your breath taken away for -Behold your God.

You know some people in the face of suffering try to get God off the hook by reducing him.So they point to the devil and say:’Its all the devils fault.God is doing his best,but the world lies in the power of satan.So there is a limit to what poor God can do.’Others will try to absolve God by appealling to free will.God doesn’t want these hings to happen,but he can’t do much about it,we have freedom to defy him,we sin and so suffering is all divine retribution.Now of course there is some truth in both of these.There is a malevolent personal force in this world.We are responsible moral agents who rebel and God’s anger does fall on this world because of it.But the trouble with such answers is they they offer no hope.If God is the helpless pawn of satanic wiles or the hapless victim of human free will then Aberfan or the Exile can happen without God being able to do anything about it-or even being able to bring good out of it,so what sort of God is he?He is certainly not worthy of worship and definitely not worthy of trust.No ,you see ,only a God who is big enough and good enough is a able to care enough to do something about our mess.Comfort is to be found not in denying God’s power,but in a massive reassertion of his absolute sovereignty over every twist and turn of our human existence.The prophet does not excuse God,he exhalts him.And it is only against this backdrop of an all knowing,all powerful Creator God who sees the end from the beginning and who is intimately,passionately, involved in the lives of the people he has made, can we say ‘God cares’.Certainly sometimes God’s purposes may be inscrutable,beyond our understanding,but that doesn’t mean the are irrational,God having no purpose at all.

Notice the rhetorical question which appears twice,once in v18 and then again in v25 ‘To whom will you compare me’says God.Well, tell me where will you go to try and get some angle on what God is like?

What about science and technology-the geologists ,astronomers, theoretical physiscists?We are so proud aren’t we of our knowledge and our mastery of the universe,our ability to harness the forces of nature for our own ends.What wonderfully powerful creatures we human beings are.Really?Would anyone like to try their hand at relocating the Pacific Ocean?Or redistributing the Sarah desert perhaps.Maybe someone would like to level off the Himmalyers.Well, you say that’s impossible.Not for God it isnt v12 (read)-God has.Does God care?

So perhaps we need to go to our universities to find some measure of God,the intellegensia,surely they will tell us?v13-14(read).I am sure you have noticed how consultative services are blossoming everywhere.There are computer consultants,management consultants,educational consultants-the list is endless as is the business lucrative.Which firm of consultants did God approach when he set about the ambitious project of creating a universe?We have problems understanding the workings of the universe let alone designing it.But God had no such difficulties. From the smallest neutron to the largest nebula ,from the flea to the elephant,God’s creative genius enivisaged them all in an instant.No one taught God.He is omniscient.Even the great Albert Einstein once said ‘I feel like a man chained.If only I could be freed from my intellectual smallness’There are no such intellectual limitations imposed upon God.He knows and understands everything-that baby being formed in your womb,he knows exactly the unique DNA code of that child,together what he or she will be saying and doing in two years time.And you ask does God care?

So the prophet moves on to the international arena ,the political empires of men.Maybe amongst their vastness,with their military stockpile and economic plans something great and godlike will be found which will be the meauring rod by which we can compare God.No such luck says the prophet-v15/17.Do you remember how we trembled at the sound of jackboots marching across Europe-60 years ago now?How we stocked up in preparation for a nuclear confligration during the Cuban missile crisis-1962?How even now the US are seeking to impliment the abandoned star wars defence initiative just in case Iraq or Libya get the bomb.Let me ask:Where is the Third Reich now?The Soviet Empire?The Babylonian empire?They form the dust of yesterdays history.They don’t cause this God to tremble.And you know what?They shouldnt cause his people to tremble either.What we call superpowers.Do you know what he calls them?Nothings.Does God care?

Well,let’s go to the religious imagination then and see what happens.People construct their mental images of God as well as their metal images.People often say to me ‘My God wouldnt do such a thing’Of course not,their God wouldnt do anything and is incapable of doing anything because it is a lifeless construct-v18-20.(read).There is nothing more pathetic than idolatry and yet we live in a nation full of idols.The tin pot gods of consummerism,of pleasure,the football stars,the pop idols,leave us empty and frustrated in the face of the great challenges of life.Oh,People will spend their Sunday at the temple of the supermarket or the open air meeting of the car boot sale,but they wont go there for comfort when a loved one dies.Have you ever wondered why?Their god has toppled.But can this God care?

Well,Perhaps it is amongst the great and mighty we might glimpse something god-like and say yes he is like this,after all ,the Kings of babylon were thought to be gods-v21-24.(read).That is how these great men who frighten us -Hitler,Stalin,Hussain appear before God,he only has to blow on them as a man might blow on a candle and they are gone.Does God care?

But lets have one more try .The prophet takes us by the hand and leads us to the night sky and says look at these-v26(read).There is nothing more humbling,more breathtaking than to stand gazing beneath a star studded sky.How small we feel.How vast it all is.And yet in the Genesis account of creation the stars are mentioned almost as an afterthought,like the final flick of an artist’s brush.Some people today, as did the Babylonians believe that our lives are ruled by the stars-astrology.What a pathetic belief.No, we worship the one who rules the stars,the one who moulds space and time itself as the arena for his artistry.

So then, to whom will you compare God?There is nothing.You search the whole universe in vain to find one thing which even begins to approximate the great God we have come to worship this morning.He is the incomparable one.And your trouble Israel,says the prophet,and we might well add,Christian,is that you have been so battered by circumstances ,so deluged by the world’s propoganda that you have forgotten it.You think that God is like you-fickle,feeble,forgetful.And because you have forgotten it you complain-v27(read).Is this not why we often complain?Why our problems seem so great,it is because our view of God is so small.See how God answers such a complaint -v28-31(read).Young men will fall exhausted,even these young Babylonian warriors you are afraid of will eventually become extinct.But not the people of God ,they have available to them a supernatural energy which keeps them going.Why?because they put their hope in the living God.There is that word again-hope.So much of faith in this tragic ,broken world of ours is patience.The immature think that the normal Christian life is soaring eagle-like,flying up there on a super spiritual thermal layer- working miracles now.Not so,faith is very much about patience.The climax is that ability to walk in the midst of the darkness of life and to trust in so great and glorious a God who himself is no stranger to tragedy-he endured such tragedy on the cross and overcame it .And that same God says to you and to me this morning-trust me,for I care for you.

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